In the 1840s, the English botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker received a letter from his close friend and colleague Charles Darwin which contained Darwin's first known confession to anyone other than his wife that he was seriously considering the idea that biological organisms change over time. In confessing to Hooker his growing belief in evolution, Darwin said that it felt like he was confessing a murder. Given the extremely controversial nature of evolutionary thinking in 19th century England, Darwin's reluctance to share his emerging ideas is understandable. But how times change. Today, more than 150 years later, it is those who dissent from Darwin's theory of natural selection who are put in the position of feeling like they are confessing a murder. I should know, for I am one of them.
Since the development of the so-called modern evolutionary synthesis in the 1940s and 1950s, Darwinian natural selection has been enshrined as the accepted understanding of evolution by the scientific establishment, and this theory has been clothed in a rhetoric of triumph so extreme that anyone who would dare dissent from it is automatically branded as an anti-intellectual religious fanatic. Darwinian philosopher Daniel Dennett has said that Darwin deserves a prize for coming up with the best idea that anyone has ever had—better than even Newton or Einstein. He has also said (tongue in cheek, I assume) that parents who undermine their children's faith in Darwinian evolution should be charged with child abuse. The great Harvard evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr has said that the modern evolutionary synthesis has achieved its great status through irrefutable proofs and the sweeping away of all rival theories.
As a scholar in the humanities, I have been trained to be suspicious of these kinds of grand narratives. Broad sweeping narratives of triumph almost always oversimplify history for the purpose of supporting a particular ideological agenda. And the triumphant narrative of Darwinian evolution appears to be no exception. So I am going to confess murder (metaphorically, of course) by challenging the historical veracity of the popular narrative of evolutionary theory's historical development at the first Luther College Religion Forum of the 2015-16 academic year on Sept. 24 at 6 p.m. in the Recital Hall of the Center for Faith and Life. My presentation is titled, "Resistance to Change in a Theory of Change: Religion, Science, and Evolutionary Theory's Failure to Evolve."
Despite the rhetoric of triumph that has come to clothe the modern evolutionary synthesis, quite a number of biologists have been making calls for a fundamental rethinking of evolutionary theory on the grounds that the established theory cannot fully account for all aspects of life's diversity as we observe it. But these calls have gone largely unheeded. What accounts for this resistance to re-evaluate a theory that itself embodies the very idea of change and impermanence? This reluctance seems to be due to fears that a revised theory will not square so easily with an understanding of evolution as a natural and undirected process, a possibility that would undermine evolution's status as science by blurring the lines between science and religion. This ideologically motivated resistance to a fundamental rethinking of evolutionary theory may actually be hampering our ability to really answer the question that exercised Darwin so long ago: how did the great diversity of life come about?
Does arguing a thesis like this make me a religious zealot? Daniel Dennett would probably say so. But any who know me and who know how deeply committed I am to the critical study of religion would recognize how wrong Dennett would be. The idea that one must be either a full supporter of established evolutionary theory or a religious zealot is simply a rhetorical ploy to cover up the uncomfortable fact that the evidentiary basis of evolutionary theory is not nearly so strong as the supporters of this theory would like us to believe it is. And besides, I am not arguing against the idea of evolution itself. I am not a creationist. I accept the evidence that organisms have evolved into their current forms over billions of years. It is the mechanism driving that evolutionary process that I am questioning.
The grand narrative of the founding of the modern evolutionary synthesis tells us that the seminal work of the synthesis was Theodosius Dobzhansky's 1937 publication "Genetics and the Origin of Species." Dobzhansky is credited with bringing together the emerging field of population genetics with the study of organisms in the wild to show how the theoretical speculations about how natural selection works were consistent with what biologists observe in natural populations. In this grand synthesis, Dobzhansky is credited with setting up natural selection as the established theory of evolutionary mechanism. But Dobzhansky's own words don't quite fit with this narrative.
On page eight of "Genetics and the Origin of Species" he wrote:
…among the present generation no informed person entertains any doubt of the validity of the evolution theory in the sense that evolution has occurred, and yet nobody is audacious enough to believe himself in possession of the knowledge of the actual mechanisms of evolution…
I don't believe anyone today should be so audacious either.